Thursday, October 27, 2016

Plato and Immortality by Edmund Hamilton Sears 1879

THE PLATONIC IMMORTALITY by Edmund Hamilton Sears 1879

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Pythagoras, a native of Samos, was born not far from the year 584 B. C, and therefore flourished about one hundred and fifty years before Plato. He was both reflective and all-sided. More than Shakspeare even, he seems to have earned the appellation of "myriad-minded." He traveled east and west, seeking out what was good and true in all religions, and then combining them into one comprehensive system. He was prophet as well as philosopher; and how much he received through his own prophetic vision we do not know from the scanty materials which we have pertaining to his life and doctrine. He went to Egypt and was initiated into the Egyptian mysteries. He went to India, and from the priests of the most ascetic school penetrated to the inmost religious consciousness of the Hindus. He went to Persia and learned of the Magi. From Egypt or from India, or from both, he brought home the doctrine of the metempsychosis and pre-existence. He was a devout worshiper of Apollo at the Delphian shrine, as already related, and a firm believer in the immortality of the soul. He combined music, mathematics, philosophy and religion all in one; and he seems to have been the first who conceived the idea of the planetary and stellar orbits arranged on a grand musical scale, so that the heavenly orbs make harmony in their motions and sing together the unending song of the creation.

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All this is reproduced in Plato, transfused and moulded anew by his wonderful genius. In Pythagoras, therefore, as expounded by his ablest disciple, the East, and the West as it then was, meet together; and they give us the best thought of the Orient, clarified by the Greek intellect, in a system which foreshadows more perfectly than any other the truths of Christianity.

A primitive chaos which had no beginning, is an essential postulate of the old Greek religion. The idea of creation, as we understand the word, was entirely foreign to the Greek mind. It knew of but two alternatives—atheism, which makes phenomena an evolution from unintelligent and unconscious noumena, and dualism, in which the primitive chaos is operated upon by some intelligent Power outside of it and co-eternal with it. The course of Greek philosophy for one hundred and fifty years, is a see-saw between these two alternatives; sometimes, however, on the atheistical side, sublimating in idealism, and sometimes determining grossly into materialism. Pythagoras, as his system is elaborated and finished by Plato, rises to a clearly-pronounced monotheism, cumbered with the mildest dualism that could be wrought into it. The Deity constructs the universe after the perfect patterns which he had always at command. The patterns were not abstractions, not his own mere subjective thoughts, but self-subsisting Entia, or things in themselves. These he let down into chaos and clothed with matter; hence this system of Nature with the whole range of material phenomena. Hence the chaos changed into the Cosmos. The chaotic matter is in its nature corrupt and disorderly, but the Ideals which are embodied in it are good and fair, and bring the chaos into comparative order, though they get poorly revealed in these deceptive and sensuous phenomena. Then the Deity breathed a soul into the Cosmos and made it alive; and he gave to each planet and star its own separate soul, so that the whole Cosmos is a God, and planets and stars are lesser gods in the all-pervading life of the Cosmos that contains them.

Last of all were formed the souls of men. But before they were incarnated in material bodies, they were placed each on its own star there to be borne round in its radiant orbit, hear the star-music, drink in the knowledge of the heavenly spheres and the wisdom of the gods themselves. There they have direct knowledge of the ideals, the eternal models of all beauty and perfection as they exist in se and in their naked excellence and glory, not as they are muffled and half concealed in earthly forms. After these celestial experiences these souls are born into earthly bodies, under whose heavy wrappages at first all memory of this prenatal experience is buried and lost. In telling us why they are thus incarnated and buried in sense, Plato is not consistent with himself. In the Phaedrus it would seem to be on account of some lapse in the prenatal state; but in the Republic and the Timaeus it would seem to be necessary in the course of all human experience, and in order that every soul may have the temptations, the struggles and the victories essential to the attainment of immaculate virtue.

At any rate, here we are in these corruptible bodies. In each of these bodies are two mortal and bestial souls, and the celestial soul is yoked with them and dragged by them downward into sense. If, however, it resists, it keeps itself immaculate. No stains of the body will rest upon it. Moreover, by quitting sense through meditation and by retiring within itself, and thence rising by an internal way toward God, the knowledge impressed on the soul in its prenatal state revives and comes out as in flame letters; the starmusic is heard again, and the divine patterns of all goodness and beauty come forth anew in the consciousness. So the highest and best knowledge comes by reminiscence. Literally, our birth is "a sleep and a forgetting," and our higher birth is an awaking and a resurrection through all the burial-places of memory. Even the contemplation of physical beauty, to the purely philosophic mind, instead of exciting amorous desire, revives in the soul a knowledge and love of the ideal beauty and the supreme excellence, because of some correspondency between the ideals and the earthly types and copies where they are dimly shadowed forth.

The soul that keeps itself chaste, neither stained by bodily appetites nor lured by the mockeries of sense, reascends at death to its native star, to enjoy in redoubled measure the divine banquet of wisdom and the harmony of the spheres. It reascends in a refined ethereal body resplendent with its own purities, never again to be incarnated. But if the soul sinks down into sense and becomes marked with its pollutions, then at death it starts on the long and dreary circuit of the metempsychosis. It goes to Hades, thence to be reborn into earthly bodies—such bodies as shall be the incarnation and the image of the lusts or the fantasies to which it has yielded; tigers, wolves, swine, reptiles or hawks and kites, or sparrows that flit through the air. Or souls may be born again into human bodies. Cowards become women. But never does the soul reascend to its starry heaven till its round of transmigration has expiated its sins and placed it on the ascending way toward the blest abodes. The reader will not fail to recognize here the metempsychosis of the Hindus which Pythagoras found in India and imported into Greece.

Plato's conception of immortality and its retributions, is embodied in one of those myths, which in his discoursings reminds us of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the illustrative teachings of Jesus.

There was a certain man, a Pamphylian, Erus by name, who fell in battle. But while the bodies of others who fell were corrupted, the body of Erus remained untouched by decay; and on the twelfth day, when laid on the funeral pile, the spirit revived within it. Erus had been all this while in transic vision, and he told what he saw in the scenery of the immortal life, whither his soul had been permitted to go. He went in spirit to a mysterious and hallowed place where the ways part upward and downward. There were the mouths of two chasms that opened down ward on the left into Hades. There were two openings on the right upward into heaven. The judges sat between. Through one of the chasms downward souls were sinking to their punishment; and through the other chasm souls were rising, to be reincarnated and reborn into earthly bodies. Through one of the openings upward souls were ascending into heaven; and through the other opening souls were descending from heaven, to be reincarnated also and reborn into earthly bodies. These last were not sinful souls, but such as had not yet experienced trial and conflict. Those rising from beneath were covered with dust and squalor, and they told of the dreadful punishments they had witnessed and experienced during the long thousand years of their dismal circuit below. Those descending from above told of their enjoyments amid scenery of amazing beauty. The punishments of those from below were for wrongs committed, and were meted out to every one tenfold, according to his deserts. There were some, however, who were not permitted to rise for a new incarnation. There was a tyrant who had murdered his kindred and whom the throat of the chasm would not disgorge. It bellowed when he tried to ascend through its mouth, —a signal for the avengers to cast him into Tartarus. Those, like him, dyed too deep in wickedness for any expiation, on the same signal given, were thrust down lacerated with thorns.

All the souls meeting from below and from above went into a meadow close by, where they mingled together for seven days. They told their varied history and experience, so that they learned from each other the mysteries of heaven and hell. There were greetings of old friends and acquaintances. Thence they all passed on to where the Fates gave them the choice of the new lives they were to live. On this choice the new future depends; and Plato adds one myth to another to illustrate the supreme importance of choosing with single reference to a life of justice inspired with a love of justice. He, or his seer in whose name he speaks, describes the wrong and foolish choosing of those who are influenced by something painful in the past which they wish to avoid, not by a single aim for what is just, beneficent and pure. The new life once chosen, there is no reversal. The Fates make it sure that their choice they shall have. If they choose in reference to honor or pleasure, and get involved in new and painful retributions, they have only to blame themselves, for God is clear. Their new lives chosen, they drank the Lethean waters and were laid asleep; and when midnight was approaching, there was thunder and an earthquake, and these souls went myriads of ways like shooting stars to new births and incarnations on the earth. [This myth is found in the Republic at the End.]

Such is the Platonic immortality. The evidence of it, as exhibited in the Phaedon, which gives the last conversation with Socrates and the arguments which then came from his lips, is mainly intuitive. It is based substantially on the fact of the soul's pre-existence and on its intrinsic celestial nature. The man who resists the allurements of sense and appetite, and lives justly and purely, becomes conscious of the divine signature on his soul, and comes into the full possession of truths which he neither originated nor learned from tradition, nor from sensuous phenomena, but which are eternal and inborn. He comes to a vision of divine Ideals which are within and above sensuous phenomena, and he holds commerce with them. Life and death are opposites. But the soul is essential life; therefore, where the soul is, death cannot be. How natural this doctrine of pre-existence to a mind whose intuitions were thus deep and clear! The eternal truths were so congenial with it, that their lovely aspect seemed the beaming forth of old familiar faces; and when the body was lending its feeblest aid, the motions of a life which the body knows not of, were as murmurs waxing louder and louder from a land already in hearing distance, striking on the soul more distinctly as it neared its native heaven—

"As travelers hear the billows roll before they reach the sea."

The argument which convinced Socrates and Plato, seems illogical to us because we use the steps of a different syllogism. But, after all, the real ground of the argument is one and the same. It is the nature of the soul itself as revealed in the consciousness of the best minds, its interior alliance with the divinity whence come ideas of the Good and the perfect transcending the knowledge of time and sense and all the illusions of phenomena; and the pre-existence and post-existence of souls was the form in which they affirmed the unchanging Substance amid the billowy fluctuations of Time.

As to the metempsychosis, it has an exoteric and esoteric side; or, as we should say, a literal and a spiritual sense. The most exterior form of the doctrine, as Plato gives it, was doubtless the form in which it was popularly apprehended. It is encumbered with far less of philosophical difficulty than the Perso-Judean doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh, imported by the Christian Fathers into the popular Christianity. Wherever vitally received, it must have had a most powerful and pervading moral influence. Indeed, we know that this was the case. Those who received it needed not to send their imaginations into another world to evoke the forms of retribution against all sin and uncleanness. They had only to look down into the animal kingdom, where the hideous images of an inverted and degraded humanity were reflected back upon them, and where sensuality, subtlety, cruelty and avarice might see themselves cropping downward already in the swinish, snakish or wolfish visages, where they were to find their indwelling and incarnation. Not the punishment of sin merely, but sin in its intrinsic and hateful qualities, is here held before the transgressor as in an everturning mirror where he must always behold his face.

But further than this, the metempsychosis had a humanizing influence, as it established relations between man and the animal kingdom which held them as partakers of his humanity and immortality. Cruelty toward animals, to which the temptations are sore and constant, because these dumb natures cannot put their groans and agonies into speech, received an effectual check in the metempsychosis; for it made the whole world of animated nature, down even to the reptile and the insect, plead as from human eyes for mercy and tenderness. "Thou shalt not kill" was a command whose authority extended over every species of sentient life, even to the worm we tread under our feet. [Both the pre-existence and the metempsychosis have been held by many able theologians down even to the present time. Origen was tenacious of both doctrines. Some modern theologians, well represented by Dr. Edward Beecher, contend that the pre-existence is an open question in the interpretation of Christianity. Robert Southey, in one of his published letters, regards it as "not improbable." Sir Walter Scott says in his Diary that at one time he was haunted with a sense of it. Wordsworth sings it in his incomparable ode, and Leasing gives into it as a very plausible hypothesis.]

But Pythagoras had his esoteric doctrine—an interior range of truth of which the exterior was only type and symbol; and its explication he vouchsafed only to the circle within the circles, or to his most intimate disciples. This, of course, has been lost; but it is not difficult to imagine from the husk what the kernel must have been. It must have been the universal truth of the twofold nature of man—one celestial and the other bestial; the soul of the one immortal, and always as it rises becoming the more perfect image of God; the other bestial, and when it dominates the higher nature dragging it down and shaping the whole man in the image of the brute and the reptile. Man, when he yields to sense, approximates toward the animal, and becomes one. His lusts take on the disgusting image of the lower natures; he transmigrates into their very forms; he is an immortal soul in swinish shape when he gives himself up to swinish lusts; incarnate in the image of the serpent if he descends to serpent wiles. This, we imagine, was the inner or spiritual side of the metempsychosis; and that, without making animals themselves immortal, it made the animal kingdom, through its lowest forms, to show the likeness which the soul, immortal as it is, may take upon itself, and under which its native and celestial glory may be eclipsed and hidden from view. [Herder believed that the metempsychosis had a spiritual side to it, and that its esoteric contents were such as here described.]

One God, who is both the infinite Good and the infinite Intelligence; who shaped the Cosmos after his models of supreme beauty and excellence; the correlation of every part of the Cosmos to every other part and to the soul that animates the whole; the intrinsic worth and grandeur of the human soul imprinted with God's eternal ideas, which immersion in sense may smother for a time, but cannot extinguish; its essential immortality; its enjoyment of the Divine wisdom and the harmonies of its higher sphere as the reward of a just life in the flesh; its long circuit of expiation and punishment as the penalty of injustice and sensuality,—this sums up the Platonic doctrine, cumbered with the pre-existence, with the metempsychosis and with dualism, through which the essential truths of universal religion are but half concealed. We stand here on the summit of the ancient wisdom, with the mount of the Christian illumination almost in sight. But during the four hundred years between Plato and Christ we get no nigher, but sink farther away. Platonism developed downward instead of onward and upward—into Gnosticism, where the dualism is still more hopeless and the chasm between God and the world yawns wider and wider, or into Pantheism, where God merges in the world and disappears there altogether.


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